Makgadikgadi Male Elephant Study

  • Introduction

    Northern Botswana is home to the largest elephant population in the world. As a result, the country faces increased pressure to find population management solutions for economic, social and ecological reasons.

    The overall aim of the project is to explore the intricacies of male African elephant society in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (MPNP) in order to provide a model example of a healthy “bull society.”

    The findings of this project will provide invaluable information for the inevitable decisions that will eventually need to be made on a local, national and international level. The project will help determine appropriate targets of hunting quotas and culling programmes, deciding upon suitable population demographics of translocation / reintroduction schemes to avoid mismanagement and the negative impacts on the local communities including the wider ecological community.

  • Researcher: Connie Allen

    Region:Western Boundary Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Central District,Botswana
    Organisation: University of Bristol, UK
    Partner Organisation: Elephants for Africa


  • Background

    Knowledge of the social needs of a species is required for effective conservation and species management. A result of lack of knowledge is poorly-planned decisions which in turn could have a negative impact on the species in question, and the wider community – that includes other species and human beings.

    Compared to the social dynamics of female elephants in breeding herds, the sociobiology of bulls is significantly under-researched, with little knowledge beyond the fact that dominance changes with age and sexual state (musth phenomena). There is a need for information on the model of a “healthy bull society.”

    Examples of species mismanagement include but are not limited to: The removal of older bull “mentors” from male society through targeted trophy hunts (most older individuals are targeted in legal and illegal hunting activity, owing to their desirable larger tusks) leading to a loss of essential ecological and social knowledge from communities. And secondly, the disruption to social cohesion through the loss or the lack of mature bulls leading to pre-mature and disruptive musth in adolescent males. This is in reference to the infamous case where a poorly managed translocation of adolescent males and lack of older bulls lead to musth in these young males being entered up to ten years prematurely, in Pilanesberg National Park. In their enraged state they killed 10% of the parks white rhino population, excessively damaged property and trees, to an extent of causing human mortality.

    The Makgadikgadi provides a unique opportunity to collect information on the bull society due to its overwhelming male population. In the researcher’s first field season 99% of the elephants visiting the river were male. Findings from the project will have wide reaching implications on wildlife management and conservation decisions on a local (the Boteti region experiences the highest rates of human-wildlife conflict in Botswana, primarily due to crop raiding bulls) and international scale.


  • Objectives

    The main purpose of this project is to explore the intricacies of the male African elephant society in the MPNP in order to provide a model example of a “healthy bull society”. Specific objectives of this project include:

    • To identify appropriate targets (if any) of culling and hunting programmes that will minimise disruption and damage to the cohesion of the wider social unit.
    • To identify requirements for a cohesive and healthy male community for future translocation/ reintroduction schemes both nationally and internationally – high on the conservation agenda.
    • To portray the importance of areas like MPNP to bulls and assess whether such areas should be located and protected across Africa.
  • Methodology

    Protocol 1

    The video analysis of the behaviour and social interactions of focal age classed elephant bulls visiting the Boteti River. This methodology involves nearest neighbour recordings, and a comparison of groupings of different aged elephants and how this changes during an elephants visit to the river. All will contribute to building up a better picture of the strength and nature of the relationships between age classes of male elephants.

    • Recording video footage of age classed elephants for the entirety of their stay at the Boteti, coding behaviour in line with an extensive ethogram for comparison of time budgets, rates per hour, preferred partners and nature of engagement between the 5 age classes (two adolescent categories; 10-15, 16-20, three adult categories; 21-25, 26-35, 36+).
    • Through identification of all elephants arriving and leaving the Boteti River “social hotspots” (elephants arrive along set highways) the researcher will be able to record how groupings change at the river.
    • Recording of the nearest neighbour and group size of the focal elephant every 10 minutes. These factor in the demographic and number of elephants at the hotspot on that specific day. In combination with all the above the researcher will then be able to explore an array of questions such as “are certain ages more central to the male social network?” “Are rates of aggression amongst adolescents higher when there are less mature bulls in the park?”


    Protocol 2

    The presentation of urine samples located along elephant highways to get a realistic understanding of the use of chemical communication for male elephants to monitor conspecifics in the area.

    • Urine samples of elephants with known age, sexual or social state and health condition will be collected during video sessions (protocol 1) and stored for presentation the next day. Captive studies have shown elephants can assess reproductive status through urine, the researcher will be the first to take these findings into a wild context.
    • Elephants in the MPNP are known from the EfA long-term camera trap study to utilise highways on their daily movements towards the river. By setting up a series of discrete cameras around the sample presented on an elephant highway (Figure 1) – I will be able to record the behaviour of different age classed elephants to the urine of different donors. Example responses to measure include trunk reaches, proximity to sample, Flehmen response, time spent investigating etc.
    • Through this project the researcher hopes to target specific questions such as “Who are the more important social partners for different aged elephants?” (Reflected by differential interest in samples). For example to the adolescent male are age-mates or mentors more valuable? What is the response of different aged elephants to the urine of a musth male?